WORKS: Inventions, BWV 772-86; Sinfonias, BWV 787-801
PERFORMER: Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: SBK 61869 ADD Reissue (1974)
In the early 1720s, Bach composed 15 two-part ‘praeambulae’ and 15 three-part ‘fantasias’ as learning aids for his son Wilhelm Friedemann. In 1723 he made a fair copy of the pieces, which he revised, reordered and renamed inventions and sinfonias. He also underlined their didactic purpose, the title-page describing them as ‘straightforward instruction’ in playing in two and three voices, in developing good compositional ideas and, in particular, in perfecting a ‘cantabile manner’.
Bach’s stress on educational function should not obscure the fact that the inventions and sinfonias are extremely engaging works. From bravura exuberance (Inventions 8 and 12, Sinfonia 15) to delicate filigree (Inventions 6 and 11, Sinfonia 11), these brief pieces offer a treasurehouse of lively, attractive music that also, in the anguished F minor Sinfonia, touches on more tragic and profound emotions.
Although there are several good piano versions available (the benchmark here being Angela Hewitt’s 1994 Hyperion recording), the withdrawal from UK circulation of Ton Koopman’s highly regarded Capriccio disc means there is no comparable benchmark among harpsichordists. Fortunately, either of these two new releases could fill that gap. Gustav Leonhardt’s 1974 recording exhibits his trademark clarity and thoughtfulness; some may detect a hint of the pedagogue in his playing, but this is a sparkling account. Masaaki Suzuki favours a softer-toned instrument, has a more lyrical touch and sounds completely at ease with the music. He doesn’t always match Leonhardt’s rigour in articulating the music’s inner workings, but his ‘cantabile manner’ comes close to perfection. Graham Lock